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NBA owners, players undersell progress because it is fragile

Nov 10, 2011, 8:01 AM EDT

NBA Commissioner Stern speaks to reporters in New York Reuters

Last time there was optimism about an NBA labor deal, David Stern was standing in the back of the union press conference joking with Billy Hunter, and the words “striking distance” were thrown around. Then it all blew up.

Wednesday night — really, Thursday morning — after 12 hours of talks that again led to optimism, both sides downplayed it. Stern was saying people should not read “optimism or pessimism” into anything and the players were talking about how much work was to be done.

It may blow up again, or this time the two sides may push through. But the attitude suggests the sides have learned the fragility of what they have and are trying hard to make it work. A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com had a good quote along these lines.

“Remember, they have to go back and sell this to their people,” one source said. “No matter what they agree on, those people, the owners and the players, are the ones who will decide if there’s a deal or not. They’re not going to be happy, or show signs of being happy, until this deal is done.”

If one side hypes what happens, saying it made big gains, that would make it more likely the other side’s constituency would try to shoot the deal down. So hype was nowhere to be found Thursday morning.

We don’t know what progress was made in the meeting. The players went into this negotiating session giving up more revenue — down to the 50/50 deal the owners wanted — but expecting some give on system issues in return. The owners are not giving it all up. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo tweeted that progress was made on three of the five key system issues.

However, all those issues are interlocked with the revenue split tied in — pull on one loose thread and the whole thing comes apart. It’s fragile. It needs to be treated that way.

But maybe the best sign that there is real progress is anecdotal. Like this little exchange overheard by Henry Abbott of TrueHoop.

As he left the news conference early Thursday morning, after 12 hours of bargaining, Stern stopped in the crowded hallway to converse with union economist Kevin Murphy, who says he is trying to arrange his schedule to be here for the next session to start at noon.

Stern encouraged Murphy to show up, saying, “It will be a good day to be here.”

Don’t read much into that. But that doesn’t sound like a guy who think things will go badly Thursday. Just don’t expect Stern to sell the positives.

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